The archetypal indie band Hefner were huge favourites of John Peel and remain dear to the hearts of a certain sort of 90s indiekid. Their frontman and songwriter was Darren Hayman, who steered them through 4 studio albums before they broke up. He then formed The French and has since released two solo albums: Table for One (2006) and Darren Hayman and The Secondary Modern (2007) as well as a clutch of 7” EPs inspired by his holidays. (He’s in the middle of re-releasing the Hefner and French albums on his own imprint, crammed with bonus tracks, and the Holiday EPs are now repackaged on CD – for the exhaustive discography go to his website.) His next album Pram Town has already been recorded and he’s also playing with the indie-bluegrass supergroup Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee, whose debut album was recently released on Fortuna Pop! He’s started to play a small number of gigs with Jack Hayter revisiting the Hefner songbook but don’t miss out on these as they look like they won’t last long before he has new songs to promote. He’s a fascinating interviewee, fearsomely imaginative when talking about the worlds that he’s created and populated, brutally matter of fact when discussing the mechanics of the music business. We spoke to him on 30 March before his Luminaire gig.
SXP: Were you surprised by the reaction when you announced that you were going to be performing Hefner songs with Jack?
Darren: Yeah, a bit surprised. By my way of thinking I’ve always done Hefner songs. There’s an element of selling those two shows that’s a bit like: where were you in the hard times! But I’ll enjoy it, I won’t be grumpy and it’s great having loads of people come. Franic and Jonny from the Wave Pictures are going to help us so I think we’re going to do the first half of the show just me and Jack, and Franic and Jonny are going to be our surrogate Antony and John!
SXP: Jack’s working on a new album with you. Is that Pram Town?
Darren: No, Pram Town’s finished. I’ve got used to working two [albums] behind. Once I get the back catalogue done, then I’ll be able to get into the habit of releasing an album a year or every 8 months and then hopefully I’ll catch up with myself. I can’t be bothered waiting. Pram Town’s finished and I guess that’s going to be released in September or November.
SXP: You’re obviously a prolific writer to have just released the Secondary Modern album and to have another on the way.
Darren: Well, Pram Town was finished when Secondary Modern came out. To my way of thinking, I finished Pram Town in October so in terms of writing I’ve taken, what, five months off? It doesn’t seem like a heavy workload to me! To write an album a year is to write a song a month. I don’t really understand what everybody else’s problem is!
SXP: You look at your Holiday EPs and it seems that you go away and you’re still writing.
Darren: But I still spent plenty of time on the beach! They’re only songs. I don’t particularly understand why Portishead took 10 years over their album but I do understand why they would take longer than me. By and large, when I overcomplicate things people tend not like it. And normally, a couple of years later, I don’t tend to like it when I look back.
SXP: What’s it like having to look back on your Hefner releases?
Darren: I still like Fidelity Wars and We Love the City. I don’t really like the first Hefner album and the fourth one. It’s a bit to do with my voice on the first one and a bit to do with the lyrics. Even at those shows with Jack I’ll probably only play two or three of them. And I wouldn’t do a couple on Fidelity Wars.
SXP: You’re going back and releasing everything: the singles, the b-sides, the Spanish tracks…
Darren: It should be everything. The slight hiccup is that some of the B-sides and EPs were BBC sessions and that’s quite expensive for me to licence. So there’ll be a few omissions and it’ll be because the BBC owns it. I think it works out cheaper if I licence a whole album from the BBC rather than one song an album but it might just be unfeasible for an artist who sells as little as me to licence from the BBC.
SXP: Is it difficult managing your own affairs?
Darren: It’s difficult because the default setting for an artist is to be excited about your new thing and that’s a problem with being so far ahead. So it was a problem with Secondary Modern because I wanted to talk about Pram Town and it’ll be a problem when Pram Town comes out. It’s even more pronounced when it’s something 10 years ago. So that’s the problem: you just don’t feel enthused by the project. There’s another problem as well – there’s quite a lot of work just to check everything and there were a few mistakes on Breaking God’s Heart and people were a bit cross with me because normally it’s quite good having other people double checking stuff like spellings and the sleeve. But I can’t complain too much – it does mean I can do whatever I want on some things. An album like Pram Town would have met some sort of resistance [on a label], and even the Holiday EPs. I probably would have had trouble convincing Too Pure to release 4 seven inchers, 500 only. So that’s good!
SXP: You say everything you write is a Hefner song but you’ve dabbled in electronica with The French and The Stereo Morphonium, which feels like a departure. Does it feel linear to you or do you accept it’s a bit more winding?
Darren: Yeah, I do think it’s quite linear. I think there’s a much bigger difference between Breaking God’s Heart and Fidelity Wars and We Love the City. There’s a really big difference there lyrically, as you go into We Love the City and Dead Media. I’m not sure there’s been as big a shift since then. There’s a point when I start writing songs about locality and the language I use changes after the first album. I think that’s a much bigger change from the change of putting a drum machine onto it. If Hefner had made a fifth album, it would have had the same songs on it as the French album.
SXP: Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee – is that scratching your country itch or another set of Hefner songs?
Darren: After the French album I had this legal situation with Too Pure. It wasn't so much that Too Pure told me I couldn't record, just that by recording or releasing anything I would have negated my case. I had about 2 years of litigation or negotiation so I had to think of something to do. It just seemed that bluegrass music or country music looked really fun to play. The other idea of the band was not to worry about record deals, writing or anything,. To start off, we didn't even tell people we were playing, we just went to open mics. With Dave and Dan joining, they had a desire to make it a little more proper: not so many joke songs, a few ballads and the idea of recording it. If I ever get stressed about the bluegrass band, my wife says: “remember, this one is only supposed to be fun”!
SXP: So many people have been through the Secondary Modern gates. Last year it was the Wave Pictures, and then at Indietracks it was a completely different line up.
Darren: There's been a reason for it, and people haven't been falling out. The first Secondary Modern had a lot of guys who worked and then I had a tour in Spain and the Wave Pictures were all on the dole so only the Wave Pictures could do it. And we knew it would be shortlived because obviously the Wave Pictures would always do a Wave Pictures booking over a Secondary Modern one. I've got no problem if anyone wants to stick around but it's OK as well as it's quite educational to play with so many different people. It makes me think about what I want and about the difference between musicians. Pram Town has the most members of all the Secondary Moderns on it so no one should ever feel that's the last time that I'll play with them.
SXP: Where did you record Pram Town - Soup Studios?
Darren: Half and half this time. We did some drums and brass – [there are] lots of instruments on Pram Town, brass sections, violins, all sorts of things – and some bits at home.
SXP: Where does the title come from?
Darren: It’s an affectionate nickname – although I can see how it might not sound affectionate –given to Harlow, Essex and some New Towns. It was a sign of prosperity – if you went to Harlow you’d see the streets full of prams. Of course it has a slightly more modern, not so flattering context: Pramface! The album is a concept about New Towns and Harlow in particular.
SXP: You call it your “folk opera”.
Darren: It has a story. Quite a few of my albums have stories or a slightly linked narrative but none as much as this. This is definitely a character singing 11 songs that are in sequence. You shouldn’t be too worried! They stand alone. I’m going to do two songs tonight though and I’m sure you won’t think: “that sounds like chapter 11 of a folk opera”.
SXP: All your songs are full of characters but you speak in the first person a lot.
Darren: Being married to an English teacher is quite useful. I was having a lot of problems with Pram Town; I couldn’t get it to hang together. Helen pointed out that you’re singing it from loads of different perspectives; choose one person in the story and sing it all from that point of view. Which I’m sure is the sort of thing she’d say in her English lesson. Of course that was right. It made it much easier to write.
SXP: How far have you got with your astronaut songs?
Darren: It’s uphill to be honest. I quite like that I’ve told so many people so I feel like I’ve got to finish it. I’ve written maybe 7 of the 12 but I’m always ripping some up – there are about 20 discarded astronauts. I came to the decision in the last couple of months that it doesn’t have to be finished this year and I think that’s making it a bit easier now. I think I’ve put about 2 [songs] on Myspace. There’s one we played a lot with the Wave Pictures called Genesis Rock. It’s about an astronaut, Jim Irwin, who discovers this rock called the Genesis Rock that’s so many billion years old, which proves that the moon was once part of the earth. After stopping being an astronaut he sinks a lot of his money into trying to locate Noah’s Ark. That material’s right for me. But some of the astronauts are not really the sort of people who populate my songs; they’re quite stoic, military men. So it’s a little tricky.
SXP: Apollo 17 had a geologist didn’t it?
Darren: Yeah, Harrison Schmitt. He’s the only scientist. Out of the 12 people who landed on another body so far, 11 have been test pilots! That’s going to have to be the angle on that song – I haven’t written that one yet.
SXP: Perhaps you should have gone with some of the ones who just went into space.
Darren: Yeah, maybe that was unwise. There’s all sorts that would make good stories but I’ve limited myself to the 12 people who have walked on the Moon. It’s just finding an angle. When I talk about it, it sounds like a shit idea but people do ask about it a lot so it feels like I have to finish it.
SXP: It’s interesting that you have such an interest in the Moon missions.
Darren: I was born in 1970, I’m more the Star Wars generation. But when I was growing up, it was still big, my books were full of Apollo rockets.
SXP: I read your defence of Dave Tattersall and his use of solos in Art and Music magazine.
Darren: Some people have immovable points of view because of what’s decreed to be punk rock or not. And of course there is something indulgent about a certain way of playing that a lot of us would associate with bad music. He is a really good guitarist. It’s quite usual to hear heavy metal or blues guitarists who can do all the stuff that Dave can do but it’s unusual to have it sound like Ike Turner.
SXP: You’ve been going a long time and a lot of your contemporaries have given by now.
Darren: Some people just stop! Some people are just like: OK, there’s only 50 people at this gig, the record’s sold a thousand less than the last one, I’ll do another one. If I’d been used to more advertising, more publicity, if Hefner had been bigger, it’d be harder for me to be playing the Luminaire, putting out my records myself, phoning up Cargo…But Hefner were never really big enough that we had a lot of people doing that stuff. We never had a manager anyway – we were managing ourselves. So it wasn’t hard to learn how to do some of this stuff.
I go a bit funny if I don’t write songs. It’s become a bit of an overused word now – autism; we use autism to describe a lot of things that are not autistic. Nonetheless I’m going to do that now! We have behavioural things that we do that just comfort us. I wouldn’t say it was an ecstatic feeling, I wouldn’t say it was a joy – “I feel so alive when I’m on a stage or when I’m writing songs” – it’s just quite comforting. I don’t feel as nervous. If I’ve written a song in a day and Helen comes home I feel much more able to cook her dinner and feel much more human and have a conversation with her. It’s not a very romantic way of talking about music is it? I got quite addicted to sudoku the other year and I think that took the place of songwriting for a bit. Songwriting’s quite like sudoku, trying to work out a little puzzle: how do I make the song work? I rewrite all the time. That’s what I do a lot really – the first drafts of my songs are pretty bad. I edit and edit and edit.
SXP: You’re now a champion of the ukulele too.
Darren: I don’t know I feel like: “yay! Team ukulele!” People can play a tuba if they want. It’s just more that I have connections with the shop in Brick Lane [The Duke of Uke] and Matt’s become a friend and the shop helps all of us in so many ways. So I feel we owe a debt to Matt and the shop.